Do I have something in my teeth?

henrique-felix-113544How many times in our lives have we been in a social situation where the person with whom we’re conversing over dinner or lunch has something green stuck in their teeth? There comes a point when you no longer actually hear what they are saying and you become fixated with that hideous thing lodged unceremoniously between their incisor and first molar. In those situations, my brain usually begins to race… how do I let them know? Where do I even look? Do I make a discreet hand gesture, pointing to the afflicted area? Do I just casually say, “Um, there’s something in  your teeth?” Or do I just do my non-confrontational best to ignore it, mentally willing the troubling piece of food to make a quick exit without anyone being the wiser? And what about when there is a another person at the table who is also in-the-know? They see the green speck as plain as a spinach salad, and yet they’re not saying anything. They’re going along with it…

When I was working as a young professional at a TV station in Cleveland, there was an epic story that seemed to grow in folklore that even resulted in the creation of a new vocabulary word. As the story goes, a group of sales guys were going to take Phil Donahue to lunch. (Who’s Phil Donahue? I’ve clearly dated myself!) He was in town and was promoting the last years of his talk show which aired on our CBS affiliate. The sales guys, who were known for their slick personal style,  swanky cars and rollicking demeanor were the lives of the party at any get-together. My colleagues and I enviously referred to them as, “meat-heads” and “cro-mag’s”. They were in fact, fun-loving, successful people who were very socially connected, the popular kids, if you will. They wined and dined hometown celebrities, including Phil Donahue over lunch. And as they were wont to do, they completed the event by taking a photo to document their triumph. Remember, this is PRE-social media. (Again- clearly dating myself.) The photo was snapped and blown up to hang in the hallowed halls of the TV station next to all the photos of the distinguished anchors, reporters and other Cleveland luminaries; a wonderful idea in theory, but in practical execution, a serious faux-pas. This big, magnified picture of the sales team in jubilant celebration around their new best friend and client, Phil Donahue seemed like a great way to promote our TV station. But upon closer inspection, the sales guy to the left of Phil, whose name alludes me, an oafish, former football player, quick to laugh at anyone’s stupid joke, sported a huge, toothy trademark grin as he stood huddled next to his new bud, Phil. “What’s wrong with that?” you ask. He had a huge blackish-green thing wedged between his teeth. Right there, in undeniable, enlarged, Kodachrome color was the photographic proof. It was so legendary among all the employees, we began referring to the lodged food particle as “a Donahue.” We used the new vernacular all the time. You could look across the table and say, “Do I have a Donahue?” Or you could avert an embarrassing social blunder, by gently reminding a colleague in the midst of their eggplant parm, “Donahue at 11 O’clock.” I loved this coded language because there were even instances when folks at the table could discreetly fix the problem without anyone else knowing what was being communicated. Beautiful.

It’s been many, many years (see earlier comments about dating myself) since I stopped working at that TV station. I’m not gonna lie; I still really struggle with the social awkwardness of what’s in my/ your teeth. But now, firmly in my 40’s, having more fully embraced my Catholic faith, I have begun to mull over some of these seemingly insignificant moments in my life. I now appreciate them for the greater lesson they can convey in other life situations. These little day-to-day, awkward blips can offer a profound reflection on a much deeper level. Grappling with a food particle in someone’s teeth can even lead me to greater understanding of my own human nature. I am able to see an otherwise ridiculous Seinfeldian struggle as a metaphor for Christian love. Ok, bear with me here. I am about to explain how “a Donahue” can reveal a lot about how we express truth and love in a relationship. When someone is doing something that is embarrassing or detrimental to them, how often do we speak up? Do we voice concern or guidance that will help? How often do we lovingly mention that they may be missing something as obvious as a black chunk of food in their otherwise pearly whites? I’m not saying we need to point out everyone’s flaws, all the time. But, I know I can recall countless times when it felt socially awkward to speak truth, to lovingly tell someone they are doing something hurtful to their soul, their relationship, their life, their kids. And so, I glossed over it and willed myself to ignore it, letting that person continue in their sinful behavior without revealing what I was really seeing. I allowed them to keep smiling with something ugly marring their otherwise beautiful appearance. How many times has someone pointed out to me that I have something in my proverbial teeth? Not often enough and believe me, I’m a dental-hygienist’s worst nightmare. It’s like we’re all walking around eating spinach dip and oreos and no one is willing to point out a big ol’ Donahue. Do we suggest spiritual floss? Have you sought answers in scripture? Have you been to confession lately? This would clearly only work within our Catholic family. How’s your relationship with God? Next time, someone you know shares something that doesn’t sit quite right, be bold, ask questions. Express deep, caring Christian love. Embrace the awkwardness and potential difficulty of being met with resistance. Be willing to point out an alternate perspective. Be willing to be met with a little antagonism, even, gasp! to be not liked. Offer a kind, humble, loving reflection of what you truly hear and see. Love them. Let them know they’ve got a Donahue. And remind them of all the times you’ve had a Donahue. His name just came to me… Larry. Poor Larry needed someone to say something. They didn’t. They just snickered after the photo was taken and hung it on the wall of shame. 

One thought on “Do I have something in my teeth?”

  1. Nice segue to a very important set of questions. We used to refer to the “critical incident” in business: i.e., when something about a person distracted us and caused us to focus on only that distraction (e.g., in a job interview). A sort of cognitive dissonance situation. Picture somebody coming to an interview for a corporate sales job wearing white socks, and maybe having a “donahue” in the mouth. Recently somebody interviewed for a high level administrative position at the college. We all went to dinner (on the college) and he ordered the most expensive dinner on the menu. A “donahue” moment maybe. That squelched his chances for the job. But of course, the more important question is whether or not we are obligated to “help” those people, and what’s the proper way to do that…

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